Serene Buddhas and an Ancient Capital: Sukhothai

On Sunday, I headed up north, taking the train up to Sukhothai. The Sukhothai Historical Park houses the remnants of the 13th-14th century capital of arguably the first Thai (as opposed to Khmer) kingdom.

The train went to Phitsanolok, about an hour from Sukhothai. The trip was on a two-car special express train – I was rather puzzled to see the train because the car I was in seemed to be the engine! If you looked straight ahead down the middle of the car, you saw a door and the train tracks stretched ahead. I had bought a snack for the train, but surprisingly they served us complimentary cookies and coffee, and them later some curry for lunch.

Train curry!

Train curry!

The scenery was definitely interesting. We passed through Ayuthaya, another ancient capital, and could see tantalizing glimpses from the train tracks. Next we passed through Lopburi, where clustered around a shrine were more monkeys than I’ve ever seen before, in the shrine area, walking to it, in the street. Remember the deer in Nara? Well it’s the monkeys in Lopburi in much the same way.

We passed a lot of water, explaining why traditionally Thai houses are on stilts. We passed lots of those, too. There were many water lilies and more crane-like birds (herons, egrets, don’t know) than I’ve ever seen before. I saw some emaciated cow-like animals that seemed to have a hump (so I’m not sure if they were cows and I could just see bone structure normally hidden on a well-fed cow, or if they were some hybrid). I even saw a water buffalo!

I noticed a Western couple getting off the train at the same time so I asked whether they were going to Sukhothai and if so whether we could go in a group. As we stood looking at a map of Phitsanulok, a couple of guys speaking English joined us and we decided that a tuk-tuk to the bus station made sense. So five of us AND our luggage somehow squeezed into one tuk-tuk and away we went.

We found the bus to Sukhothai pretty easily and sat in the back by the luggage. It was a local bus, so it stopped frequently to let people on and off. A bunch of tiny older women got on, clearly coming back from selling their wares at the market. Our backpacks gradually were surrounded by piles of (probably handmade) baskets, bags of chili peppers, and finally a mesh bag of (live!) frogs. It was a great, if not terribly comfortable, trip.

The humidity in Sukhothai made the Bangkok-like heat feel 10-15 degrees hotter as we trekked to out hotel. (Turns out the first couple I had spoken to were staying at the same hotel.) Luckily, the hotel was beautiful (think teak cabins and beds with mosquito netting and a princessy feel) and, more importantly, had air conditioning. I really needed it after walking around – I’ve never been as sweaty in my entire life as during the few days spent in Sukhothai!

The following day, I set out to explore the center part of the historical part on foot. I started with the museum and then headed into the park. Some of the ruins are little more than that, while others have enough left (or reconstructed) that they are mind-blowingly beautiful. It’s just a bunch of pillars and water and serene Buddhas. I’m not sure whether some of the reconstructed ruins have been overly reconstructed, but it is a UNESCO heritage site and they do tend to be quite picky about that. Anyway, I loved it, despite being taken aback by how manicured the park is.

I had lunch at a noodle shop patronized by several of the pink-shirted park staff (delicious Sukhothai noodles) and then called it a day. I spent the afternoon reading and posting in the blissful air conditioning.

I had planned for two full days in Sukhothai, which let me be very leisurely. I booked a tuk-tuk to the northern part of the Historical Park since it seemed too far to walk in the heat. It was early enough that I beat the crowds, too. The Buddha at Wat Si Chum is beautiful. I’m so glad I didn’t miss that part of the park! My tuk-tuk driver was very sweet, off-roading a bit to get me as close to the monuments as possible. I’d have been fine with keeping our exhaust away from the ruins, but there wasn’t any way to communicate that so I accepted the offering with the spirit with which it was intended. He also picked up a turtle crossing a road so I could hold the poor creature – luckily we passed a later pond so I could set him free again!

It wasn’t even ten when I finished my tuk-tuk tour, so I wrote postcards and then walked a mile or more to the post office. People on the whole are so friendly here – I had some random people wave and yell “hello” to me in Thai and English!

I wrapped up the day with an oil massage. Massage is so cheap here!

Dazzle Me: the White Terraces of Pamukkale

I hopped on a bus from Selcuk to Pamukkale, the site of some amazing, glistening white calcium terraces and travertines at the foot of the ruins of the Roman spa town of Hieropolis. It was supposed to be a direct bus, but we actually had to change in the nearby town of Denizli. I had read that from Denizli one should take the regularly scheduled bus (which I think is free when transferring from the big intercity one) and to try to avoid the dolmus. I asked the conductor on the Metro intercity bus where to go and he pointed in one direction. It was only when my bags were loaded and none of the other tourists heading to Pamukkale were on my bus that I realized I’d been had – I was on a dolmus. At least I got the real dolmus experience where they cram people in even after all the seats are filled!

I arrived at the hotel and sat poolside until it got a little cooler before heading out to the travertines. When it came time to head out, one of the people at the pension offered me a ride. He went to move his motorbike, and I was so flustered when I found out that he wasn’t just moving it, it was our mode of transportation, that I got on the bike! Check one item off the list of things to try – we puttered along pretty much at a bicycle’s speed, but it still counts as having ridden a motorbike (I think).

Despite my having waited till 4, the sun was still incredibly strong, so I didn’t wander around Hieropolis as much as I would have otherwise. Most of the ruins are far away from the entrances and you have no idea how big it is until you walk for a ways. Then it’s rather impressive, in a grassy, still excavating kind of way

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But it’s the travertines that make this place jaw-droppingly one of a kind, a place where you stop to give thanks for being alive and privileged to see it. The hot spring water has a high calcium concentration which has turned the entire hillside into a giant stalagmite. I gather the terraces used to all be full of water, but now only some are so that others can bleach in the sun to kill the algae that would otherwise grow and discolor them.

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The terraces are lined with powdery calcium (and a number of pebbles, every single one of which my feet found when I hiked down), and so the water is this incredible light blue

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If you take off your shoes, you’re allowed to hike down. Most of it is smooth going on the calcified…er, calcium deposits, except for the bottom of the terraces. As you hike down, you are walking through the warm thermal spring water that is also flowing downhill (though most has been diverted).

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I headed back to the hotel and enjoyed one of the best meals I’ve had in Turkey (koftes and eggplant) and headed happily to bed.